Informal/formal knowledge ratio in sports

When the team of 10-year-old suburban soccer kids that I coached played against teams from Latino neighborhoods in my city, it was clear that their players had better ball mastery and game knowledge than our kids.

I wondered what I was doing wrong, but I wasn’t sure how I could cram all that information into practice.

Soon after, I drove past an all-ages pickup soccer game at a high school field and recognized some of the kids from the teams we played against.

There was my answer. As Tom Byer says, culture matters.

It dawned on me that 90% of what they knew about soccer they learned informally, at pickup games like that, practicing on their own and following their heroes.

This is what I call the informal/formal knowledge ratio: the percent of the skill and knowledge of a sport learned from informal vs. formal play.

For the suburban soccer kids I coached, 95% of what they knew came from the organized setting.

Seems obvious. For our beloved sports, 90% of skills and knowledge comes from informal play — catch and driveway basketball, for example.

The organized parts of those sports are more focused on taking the raw skills and knowledge developed in unorganized settings and refining that last 10% to contribute to team performance.

Organized soccer in the U.S. tries to do the impossible task of making up for the lack of informal play and it simply can’t do it very well.

It’s like the difference between learning a foreign language in class and going to live in a place where the language is spoken.

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Soccer culture in the U.S. lacks informal and fun skill-building games

In the 80s movie The Karate Kid, Danielsan thought he was doing chores for Mr. Miyagi in exchange for training.

He didn’t realize the chores were part of the training.

While waxing Miyagi’s cars, sanding his floors and painting his fence and house, Daniel accumulated thousands of reps on the foundation moves of Miyagi’s defensive style of martial arts.

This culminated in one of that movie’s most memorable scenes, “Wax On Wax Off.”

In it, Daniel complains about busting his hump for four days on these chores and wants to know when the training will start.

Miyagi responds, “Not everything is at it seems.”

He then demonstrates that the chores were the first part of the training by showing Daniel he has the basic moves to build from.

While the movie is fiction, the Miyagi learning approach is true to life.

Sports that become part of a culture spawn simple, complementary activities and mini-games that also become part of the culture.

These games/activities seem to be meant for fun. But, as Mr. Miyagi says, “Not everything is as it seems.”

Like Miyagi’s chores, these games also build reps in skills useful for the sport. They also spread these skills to a wide base.

Examples of such games in the U.S. are playing catch, “21”, OUT and HORSE. These are fun and help improve basic competencies in the three main sports in the U.S.: baseball, basketball and football.

Ten year-old’s in the U.S. that can’t catch a baseball or make a basket are the exception, not the rule.

Unlike Mr. Miyagi’s chores, these games are fun. Instead of  being assigned by a coach, kids play and discover them on their own.

Kids are also motivated to learn them so they maintain street cred with their friends and family.

The odd part is that so few truly appreciate how much these games contribute to the overall talent level in sport.

They give too much credit for organized sports, ‘x-factor’ athletes or great coaches and totally miss the much more important contribution of unorganized play.

A key problem holding soccer in the U.S. back is that these simple, fun and self-directed soccer activities are not a part of our soccer culture, yet.

These are some of the simple “playing catch”-like soccer activities that kids in soccer-loving cultures play:

  • Juggling
  • Monkey-in-the-middle
  • 1v1 take-away (score by taking ball or nutmeg) and 1v1 with goals
  • Futsal, or small court/small field soccer that can easily accommodate 1v1 to 5v5 games, just like our driveway basketball

When I say part of their culture, I mean kids want to play these all the time with wide ranges of age and ability involved.

They are played at school, after school, at family gatherings, on their own, just about whenever and wherever.

I read about how it’s common for kids in Spain, for example, to play 10 hours of monkey-in-the-middle a week for fun. Many American soccer teenagers have barely accumulated that much time on that game in their life.

Getting kids to play these games is trickier than simply encouraging them play. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t stick.

That’s where culture comes in. There’s a difference between a coach encouraging them to play and kids wanting to play because their friends, family and neighbors want to play. Their interest gets piqued when they see someone older that is head and shoulders above everyone else. They want to be like that. So, they work at it to get better.

I’ve seen this, firsthand, at this party that I wrote about last year.

This is how activities like catch and ’21’ stick in our sports culture. And, these are the reasons why a ten year-old that can’t catch a ball is rare.

Likewise, in soccer-playing cultures it’s common for ten year-old’s to cleanly receive a soccer ball on their back foot, while in the U.S. it’s not only uncommon, it’s not even well-known that that’s a thing.

Kids play soccer to sell ‘hotel-room-nights’

From the website of a new youth soccer complex opening in my area:

Tournaments are expected to generate 18,000 room nights each year for [name of city] hotels.

That is the primary purpose of competitive youth soccer in the U.S.: selling hotel room nights.

From that perspective, it’s doing pretty well. Maybe a little too well.

The U.S. lacks a soccer ball culture

Here’s a great tweet from Tom Byer:

Good timing. I’ve been working on a similar thought.

For me, it comes down to how much time kids spend discovering the ball, self-directed. The ball culture fosters this in soccer-playing cultures.

Not only does the US lack soccer culture that doesn’t promote discovering the ball in a self-directed fashion, many aspects of our culture hinders it.

Some of the top young players now, like Pulisic and Sargent, are good examples of what spending lots of time working with the ball outside of organized play can do.

Nearly anything that is wrong with soccer in the U.S. can be traced back to whether it helps or hinders kids from discovering the ball, self-directed.

Here are just a few examples I’ve seen…

What wins at young ages

Winning soccer at young ages is mainly the result of being the biggest and fastest. This doesn’t encourage kids to discover the ball.

Parents lack of knowledge

They simply don’t know what activities they can do with their children to help and when. I can attest to that. I didn’t.

This also hinders in how their interpretation of the soccer experience giving ample reasons from the best to the worst players at young ages to keep kids from discovering the ball.

Examples — For the best: They don’t need to. They’re doing just fine without it!

For the worst: They’re just in it to have fun and to be with their friends. I don’t want to force them to work with the ball and ruin their love for the sport.

Those same things are said about kids in other sports in the U.S., but with an “and”, as in…AND they should be improving fundamentals, too.

For example, parents don’t interpret the 26 to 24 tee ball wins of their 5-year-old as a sign their kid doesn’t need to improve catching, throwing and deciding where to make the play.

Rather, they get their kid out in the yard and play catch with them. They watch baseball on TV and point out where the fielders are making the play.

Scheduling

Another factor is the schedule of sports that has emerged in the U.S. Each sport has carved out its own season for survival (football=fall, basketball=winter, baseball=spring).

Because of this, it’s common to think it’s unhealthy to play a sport, year-round. Yet, most soccer playing countries do so without problem.

While those countries play organized soccer 10 months a year, the pace is moderate and games more convenient, making it easier to work other activities into the schedule.

There, they have one game per weekend at the neighborhood club, especially at the lower and intermediate levels of play.

Compare to the U.S., where it’s common to have 3-4 tournament games and hours of driving, even at low and intermediate levels. That makes it harder to do other activities.

And, who wants to touch the ball when they get home from such long weekends? Few.

Misinterpreting the numbers

It’s often said that we have the numbers. Millions of kids play soccer in the U.S., after all!

But, it’s not just a numbers game. Most of those kids have zero desire to discover the ball.

What percentage of those players, for example, can juggle 100 by the time they turn 10? From my experience, less than 5%. Maybe 3%. In soccer-playing cultures this is like learning to catch and throw a baseball, or shoot a basket in our culture, both of which can be done pretty well by 10 year-old Americans, both who play and do not play organized sports.

The other 97% will tell you why juggling is unnecessary.

How many of those kids play soccer with their friends for 2-3 hours after school a few times a week? Not many.

I bet these percentage are much higher in soccer-playing cultures.

More

These are just a few things that I see that do not foster a soccer ball culture in the U.S. There are many more.

Incidentally, in my city, we have pockets where ball culture is alive and well, in areas with high immigrant populations.

There are usually pickup games in these pockets.

When the suburban, non-ball culture teams play teams from these areas, it’s usually no contest, not only on the ball, but game IQ, too.

I’ve coached from the suburban side of these games. The other team would warm up with a juggling circle, while we struggled with basic pass-and-follow line.

Their coaches didn’t need to joystick their team’s play. Those kids knew how to play on their own. Their coaches were mostly quiet, every now and then calling a player to adjust positioning or something.

Without direction, our kids would repeat basic errors like dumping the ball to the other team in front of our goal.

It eventually dawned on me that the other kids had been playing soccer and with the ball all their lives.

Our kids, even with a few rec seasons, only had a few months behind them and zero ball culture.

Exhibit #3: Why U.S. Men’s Soccer team struggles

This interview with the guys that run US Soccer coach licensing process confirms that they are fine with how expensive, time consuming, inconvenient, exclusive and elitist the process is and and don’t see much reason to change it.

Exhibit #1 is here. Exhibit #2 here.

Germany and Iceland took the opposite approach 10-15 years ago and worked to get as many coaches as possible educated. It seemed to help.

Of course, why wouldn’t it?

The case for juggling (a soccer ball)

I run into a surprising number of soccer folks who don’t think juggling helps you become a better soccer player.

Their logic is pretty much: “You don’t juggle in a game, so you’ll be better off practicing the stuff you use.”

That’s too simple. Though juggling isn’t used in the game, it has lots of benefits.

Juggling trains you to use your whole body to control the ball and improves your ability to read and react to it. It also reduces your chance of injury*.

Engaging your whole body and enhancing your ability to read and react to the ball improves all aspects of ball control — 1st touch, passing, dribbling, shooting, winning 50/50s and tackling.

It trains you to use your whole body by training you to stay in the athletic position and light on your toes.

The athletic position is when you could snap a photo from the front of the player and draw a rectangle that intersects shoulders, hips, knees and toes.

This position helps reduce injuries by more evenly distributing game forces across your whole body.

Extending outside the athletic position concentrates forces into small areas of your body, like knees, ankles, hips or hamstrings. Play the tape back on many injuries and you will see the injured player was reaching a leg outside the athletic position.

The athletic position also helps you leverage your body weight and core strength, which improves ball control, strength of tackles and power on shots. Pay close attention to a  well executed bicycle kick. You will see the player did a back flip in the athletic position, driving all of his or her body weight and core strength into the ball.

Juggling has all these benefits, plus once you get half way decent at it, juggling is a fun way to pass the time and it can be done just about anytime and anywhere.

Juggling is not the only thing a player needs to work on to become a complete player. But, players who don’t juggle won’t reach their potential and increase their chances of injury.

Juggling can be learned at any age.

In soccer-playing cultures, it’s common for players learn before age 8 and not remember when they couldn’t juggle.

I learned in my 40s. In a way I’m lucky for that because I got to experience all the improvements I listed above as my juggling improved, so I could tell you about it. Had I learned it when I was 8, I may never had made those connections.

*A side note on injuries: I recall reading years ago about a study that showed that the ‘quickest’ (over short distance) players tended not to make it to the top of the game due to their propensity of getting injury. The hypothesis was that fast twitch muscles are more susceptible to injury than slow twitch muscles.

I have another theory. The quickest players tended to rely on their speed and not develop their skills and athletic position as much through practice like juggling. It could be that is what really causes more injuries.

It seems like there are more and more quick and skilled players coming in the top levels of the game like Vardy, Mbappe and Pulisic. Perhaps the skill work they’ve put in, including juggling, has helped them stay in the athletic position more and stay healthy.

The answer is both: parents and USSF

I enjoyed reading this Twitter thread between Alexi Lalas and soccer fans regarding the role of parents and USSF. This is one of the gems from that thread.

I agree with Alexi. Parents should take more ownership.

But, I also think the USSF is missing out on easy ways to help.

Many parents who spend so much time finding ‘the right’ club and coach to help their child ‘reach their max potential’, miss the lowest hanging fruit — what their child does at home.

As Josh Sargent’s Dad points out about his success, “It was Josh.” I’m sure Josh’s club helped. But, it doesn’t develop all players into a Josh. As his Dad points out, Josh was always working with the soccer ball on his own. Same with Pulisic.

So, if your kid is doing that, then by all means, spend more time finding the best club and coach.

If not, start there. Also, read Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home (I didn’t realize there’s Kindle edition!).

What can the USSF do?

This, by no means, lets USSF off the hook.

When I was a know-nothing soccer parent/coach, I visited the US Soccer site in search of answers to basic questions…

What can I do as a parent, at home, with my child to help develop basic soccer skills?

What should I be teaching a group of 6 and 7-year-old’s at practice? (Then later, 8-9 year-old’s, and so on).

I didn’t find the development handbook adequately answered these questions.

Two years into coaching, I joined my independent team to a club.

On day one, the club’s director pulled me aside for 10 minutes and showed me how to teach proper technique on a few soccer basics: inside-of-foot receiving and passing, outside-of-foot dribbling and basic changes of direction.

He said, “We teach them how to keep the ball, then we teach them to shoot. It takes time, but you have to work on this stuff every training. The first step to success is proper technique.”

Direct and simple!

It worked, too. We didn’t win state cups, but the players finally began their journey toward playing real soccer and their improvement was noticeable. Now, several years later, they keep getting better.

I remember thinking, Wow, why didn’t I find that on the Internet? Why isn’t that on the USSF website?

It should be.